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re:Virals 339

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by John Lanyon, was:

Cinnamon cheeks, Lord,
cornbread smile. SONGS feed your ribs
when you’re hungry, chile.

— James A Emanuel (1921-2013)
A haiku verse from ‘Mahalia Jackson’ — a haiku sequence in “Jazz From the Haiku King,” James Emanuel Broadside Press, 1999

Introducing this poem, John writes:

This is a radical reworking of haiku. It’s polemical. It’s heavy with irony. It debunks images from African American minstrelsy. It declares the experience of hunger among the poorest in society. I look forward to vigorous responses.

Opening comment:

Thanks to John for putting this verse up for commentary. Aside from the 5-7-5 format, it is a challengingly unorthodox one, modelled on call-and-response, well in the African and later the African-American tradition and for that matter in the early Hebrew and later Christian liturgical tradition of preces. Call-and-response is also a technique in jazz, particularly jam.

In the late 1950s — early 1960s Jack Kerouac fused jazz with haiku very effectively, notably in his album(s) “Blues and Haikus”, although arguably he stuck closer to the spirit of haiku as we perceive it in the English-speaking haiku world, in terms of juxtapositions and suggestion instead of “telling” statement, than Emanuel does here. Like Kerouac, James Emanuel idolised jazz and wrote several pieces about musicians, including the gospel blues singer Mahalia Jackson. It was fairly late in his poetic life (I think maybe the early nineties) that Emanuel spoke of compressing jazz into the short structure of haiku, along similar lines to Kerouac before him. Kerouac, however, did not adopt the rigid syllabic form: he (Kerouac) said in interviews:

“The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.” And: “you got to compress into three short lines a great big story.”

Well, the verse under consideration, which has no season, has a cut, although that comes in the middle of two phrases of equal length in call-and-response. It has an end-rhyme of the call and the response (fairly consistent with other verses of ‘Mahalia Jackson’); it certainly compresses a great big story into seventeen syllables; and it surely contains juxtapositions: the evocative “cinnamon cheeks and cornbread smile” immediately signalling African-American provenance, alongside the hunger for spiritual as well as material sustenance. The response, though, could be seen as didactic. Overall, it’s a powerful and highly-charged piece, bursting to pop, eliciting all kinds of emotions, and I think it should be welcomed as part of the genre. I look forward to readers’ comments below.

Connie Pittman-Ramsey:

It could be the Deep South … it could be anywhere poverty lives.

Such visual richness. Filled with emotion from the onlooker, me. Reaching into the heart to tell poverty’s story. To know hunger at its deepest; to know the secrets of song when it’s all that is left. Colors of brown-reds and yellows and how they grab on. Can you hear the music? Can you feel momma’s message uplifted in praise? And, can you see a young happy girl being fed by love and song and cornbread crumbs? If so, then you know why spiritual songs sung in fields by slaves are so deeply felt. Wise Mr. Emanuel. Thank you for letting me in.

David Cox:

I was somewhat flabbergasted by the word ‘chile’. I am not sure what tempted me to read the last word first, but then after seeing it in context, I realised the vernacular was staring at me; the words all found context. Food has often been the long focus point for friends and family, to break bread and figuratively chew the fat but this poem, which it appears to be, uses the essential experience of food as a metaphor for the savouring of a dear indvidual, a person. With its reference to abject hunger in “ribs”, it seems the speaker is as much dependent on this human connection, as much or more so than the essential act of food passing one’s lips. The words have all the verve and gratefulness for the muse as any Gospel music.

Amanda White:

Music is not just important here but food for the soul, it offers hope and consolation. This reads like a line from a gospel song and perhaps from an era of slavery for black Americans intimated directly here by the use of ‘chile’ and mention of ‘cornbread’. But also the hunger suggested here is more than its obvious and literal connotation, perhaps the promise that a rousing song can inspire the hunger for, in this case, freedom and equality. Conversely one could argue that if indeed the child is starving and desperate, a rousing song is not going to put food on the table and there is an inferred critique of religion here.

Radhamani Sarma:

“Cinnamon cheeks” and “corn bread smile” perhaps address jazz players that glow with bulging cheeks and vitality, the use of cinnamon embellishing their looks. The concluding lines on hunger, a craving for jump and joy. Stories and events can be expanded in this sequence. At the peripheral level, disconnected, but connections have to be established by the critics/commentators.

Harrison Lightwater – many “buts”:

Cinnamon cheeks and white smile of a young oppressed African-American child (chile), the hunger for salvation, gospel singing a consolation for an empty belly, make a couplet with stratified meanings, but it seems to belong to a period many decades before it was written. Does it make a haiku? It’s split into two even halves and there is a rhyme between smile and chile, and the audience is told what to think, in plain speech. If this was submitted to an editor, whether for a free verse or a 17-syllable haiku publication, would it get published? Should it get published? Maybe it would be included in a paper on various experiments in haiku as a branch. I like it. But there are a lot of buts.


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Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the best commentary this week, Harrison has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these, which take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentary’s author gets to choose the next poem.

Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!

where nobody bothers wildflowers

— Meera Rehm
The Heron’s Nest Volume XXIV, Number 1, March 2022

The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy.


Footnote:

Full text:

Mahalia Jackson by James A. Emanuel

« I sing the LORD’S songs »
(palms once tough to stay alive,
alarm clock on five).

Cinnamon cheeks, Lord,
cornbread smile. SONGS feed your ribs
when you’re hungry, chile.

Washboard certainties,
soldierly grace, text and style
in her brimming face.

Your hand on your heart,
her voice in your ear: pilgrim,
rest easy. Sit here.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Dmitri: Well, I have some sympathy for that view; but as Devil’s advocate: why cast any poem in a standard structural form?… It imposes a certain recognisable rhythm, in the case of the haiku form (whether as syllables or stresses) a broken and uneven one, and provides some discipline. On the other hand, why should a sonnet, say, be fourteen lines, if the material can be encompassed in thirteen or fifteen? Looking at this one, the question is whether it meets any other characteristics of haiku/senryu, which are in any case hard to pin down and subject to contention, apart from a rigid syllabic form that is itself, in English, contended? I’m inclined to keep an open mind. If it’s a good mouthful and meets some of the desiderata, then why not say okay, it’s not as many would write it, but let it in?

  2. Looks like the author thought, as many do, that a haiku
    is any verse that can be fit into three lines of 5 and 7
    and 5 syllables. In this case, a rhyming couplet
    that has a liveliness to it, and a vividness,
    but I don’t think the haiku form adds anything
    to its value. Why not simply present it as song lyrics?

  3. Dear all,
    After going through opening comments, worthy of special mention, I need to mention, it requires re reading for a special grasp.
    so many vital points we have got.
    “Well, the verse under consideration, which has no season, has a cut, although that comes in the middle of two phrases of equal length in call-and-response. It has an end-rhyme of the call and the response (fairly consistent with other verses of ‘Mahalia Jackson’); it certainly compresses a great big story into seventeen syllables; and it surely contains juxtapositions: the evocative “cinnamon cheeks and cornbread smile” immediately signalling African-American provenance, alongside the hunger for spiritual and well as material sustenance. The response, though, could be seen as didactic. Overall, it’s a powerful and highly-charged piece, bursting to pop,” …..

  4. Dear Keith Evetts,
    Many thanks for featuring a variety of comments, for revivals – a regular feature, we all admire . Appreciating your ever painstaking efforts.

  5. Dear Harrison Lightwater,
    Hearty congratulations for being this week’s winner. Going through your comments, the following are noteworthy.

    “Cinnamon cheeks and white smile of a young oppressed African-American child (chile), the hunger for salvation, gospel singing a consolation for an empty belly, make a couplet with stratified meanings, but it seems to belong to a period many decades before it was written……. ” a lots of buts too.

  6. Just to say that in the background, I’ve had a private comment noting that the commentaries to poems in this feature are almost all laudatory, and expressing slight anxiety about submitting critical comments. I can understand that, particularly where poems here are by well-established poets who may also be editors…. While it is to be expected that in the main, poems chosen to be put forward by winning commentators will have considerable merit, good critical appreciations are as welcome as praise, sometimes more welcome, as long as they continue to be well and respectfully made. Wise authors welcome all kinds of reasoned feedback.

    There’s also the opportunity for discussion in these comments…

Comments are closed.

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